December 24, 2011

Don't Forget the Christmas Tip!

In the 18th century Boston had several newspapers, which were delivered to people's homes by young men who were generally from the lower class. Although Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England at this time, the newspaper boys still relied on ancient traditions of Yuletide charity to get tips from their customers.

Many newspapers provided pre-printed fliers that their newsboys could give to their customers as a reminder about Christmas tips. Here is one example the Boston Evening Post gave out in 1764:

The Boy who Weekly Pads the Streets,
With all the freshest News he meets,
His Mistress and Masters greets.

Christmas and New-Year, Days of Joy,
The Harvest of your Carrier Boy,
He hopes you'll not his Hopes destroy...

That his generous Patrons may inspire,
By filling up his Pockets higher!

Boys who delivered the Massachusetts Spy, another Boston paper, asked this from their customers in 1771:

Kind Sirs! Your gen'rous bounty show
Few shillings on your Lad bestow,
Which will reward his pain,
Who piercing Winter's cold endures,
And to your hands the SPY secures,
And still his task maintains.
Not many people get newspapers delivered these days, but be sure to tip your postman or other service person in your life. Keep up the ancient tradition and have a great Christmas!

(All this information is from Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas.)

December 18, 2011

Chester Greenwood Day

Chester Greenwood was born in 1858 in Farmington, Maine. An ambitious young lad, when he was 12 years old he dropped out of grammar school to sell eggs from his parents' farm. Rain or shine, summer or winter, he walked about eight miles a day selling eggs.

Chester didn't like how cold his ears got as he walked his route in the winter, so he showed a little Yankee ingenuity. Rather than wrap his head in a scarf like most people did, he created two wire loops that fit over his ears and covered them with beaver fur and velvet.

He called his invention the ear muffler.

At first people laughed at Chester, but they soon saw the value in this new fashion accessory, and he began selling ear mufflers to his Farmington neighbors.

In 1877, the U.S. government issued Chester patent number 188,292 for his invention. Shortly afterward he opened factories in West Farmington and Farmington Village. By 1883 Chester's company was making 30,000 pairs of ear mufflers a year. By 1936, one year before his death, that number had increased to an astounding 400,000.

Copy of patent from Wired.

In 1977 the Maine legislature declared December 21 Chester Greenwood Day:

Chester Greenwood Day shall commemorate and honor Chester Greenwod, whose inventive genius and native ability, which contributed much to the enjoyment of Maine's winter season, marked him as one of Maine's outstanding citizens.

The people of Farmington still celebrate their native son's legacy, but on the first Saturday of December every year. Chester Greenwood Day 2011 took place on December 3. It featured a parade, horse and buggy rides and, of course, an earmuff fashion show.

I found this information about Chester Greenwood in Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England.

December 08, 2011

America's Oldest Fruitcake

A good fruitcake can last a long time. The high sugar content in the cake helps it keep, and if you frequently moisten the cake with liquor it can last a very long time.

A very, very long time. America's oldest documented fruitcake was baked in 1878 by Fidelia Bates, and it is still in her family today. In 2003 her great grandson, Morgan Ford of Tecumseh, Michigan, brought the cake on Jay Leno's talk show. Despite possible health risks Jay ate a very small piece of the cake. He said it smelled good but tasted crystallized. That's pretty good praise for a cake that's 125 years old.

Michigan may have the oldest fruitcake, but the first fruitcake recipe written in the United States was published in Connecticut 1n 1798. It's contained in our country's first cookbook, AMERICAN COOKERY,OR THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY, AND VEGETABLES, AND THE BEST MODES OF MAKING PASTES, PUFFS, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS AND PRESERVES, AND ALL KINDS OF CAKES,FROM THE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKE. ADAPTED TO THE COUNTRY, AND ALL GRADES OF LIFE. That's quite a title, but at least buyers knew what they were getting! The author is Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known except she was an orphan, a fact stated on the title page.

Simmons mentions something called plumb cake in the title of the book. Although it has a different name, the ingredients are nearly identical to a modern fruitcake. Here's the recipe:

Mix one pound currants, one drachm nutmeg, mace and cinnamon each, a little salt, one pound of citron, orange peal candied, and almonds bleach'd, 6 pound of flour, (well dry'd) beat 21 eggs, and add with 1 quart new ale yeast, half pint of wine, 3 half pints of cream and raisins...

She doesn't tell us how long to bake it or how many pans to fill, but with 21 eggs and 6 pounds of flour she probably had enough cake for the whole state of Connecticut.

The word "plumb" here is actually an older variant spelling of "plum", which centuries ago in England meant raisins or other fruit. So not only are the ingredients the same as a fruitcake, but the name is equivalent as well.

I'm not sure when fruitcake became associated with Christmas, and when it actually became known as fruitcake. Lots of cakes in America's past were really fruitcakes under another name. For example, election cake was a yeasted fruitcake. Lydia Child's 1833 cookbook The American Frugal Housewife has a recipe called wedding cake, but the ingredients are identical to a modern fruitcake. I personally love fruitcake, but I don't think most modern brides want it at their wedding.

Like Christmas itself fruitcake may have its origins in the ancient Greco-Roman world. A writer named Chrysippus claims the Cretans made cakes with nuts, fruit, spices and honey. I'm sure the Romans enjoyed similar treats as the celebrated Saturnalia, the pagan forerunner to Christmas. If a two-thousand year old fruitcake is unearthed I want to see Jay Leno take a bite!

November 29, 2011

Jerusalem Artichokes

Although Thanksgiving is gone, I still want to write about food. I'm not ready yet for Christmas blogging! So here's an ode to an under-appreciated local food item: the Jerusalem artichoke.

This nutty tasting little tuber is native to eastern North America, and with the sunflower may be the only crops domesticated by the Indians of North America. (Corn, squash and beans were domesticated in Central and South America first, and then made their way north.)

Jerusalem artichoke Image from this blog.

The Jerusalem artichoke is not really an artichoke but is actually related to the sunflower. It also is not associated with the city of Jerusalem in any way. Then how the heck did it get its name?

In 1605, the French explorer Samuel Champlain came to Cape Cod looking to establish a French colony, but he abandoned the idea because the local Indians were somewhat hostile. Although the Indians weren't to his liking, he did appreciate their food, particularly a small tuber which they added to their stews. Champlain thought it tasted like an artichoke.

Bon appetit Champlain!

Champlain brought some of these "artichokes" back to France where they were quite popular. French farmers began to grow them, and they quickly spread to other countries including Italy. The Italians referred to both sunflowers and Champlain's artichokes with the word girasole, which means "turning towards the sun." When these girasole artichokes spread to England, their name gradually became corrupted to Jerusalem artichoke. They're still known by that name today, although they're sometimes also sold as sunchokes.

You can find Jerusalem artichokes in supermarkets (obviously!), but they do grow well in New England. I planted some next to my driveway a few years ago and they still come back each spring.

Special bonus Jerusalem artichoke fun fact: the Artichoke River in Newburyport, Massachusetts is an ancient Indian area named after this scrappy tuber!

The Artichoke River.

I found this information in Howard Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower.

November 22, 2011

A snowy Thanksgiving mystery

The image above is a vintage Currier and Ives print from the 1860s. It shows a quintessential New England scene: a snowy day, an old farm house, a horse drawn sleigh. It evokes a wonderful feeling of Christmas, doesn't it?

Then why is this print titled "Home for Thanksgiving?"

A similar question is raised by Lydia Marie Child's "Over the River and Through the Woods", which has the following lyrics:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

The song was originally published as a poem with the title "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day". Why are people riding a sleigh on Thanksgiving? Some parts of New England might have snow for the holiday, but November usually isn't really a big snow month around here.

Even factoring in global climate change, our Novembers are probably not that much different from Novembers in the 19th century. According to James W. Baker's Thanksgiving: the Biography of an American Holiday, something else explains all this snowy Thanksgiving imagery.

Before Thanksgiving became a national holiday permanently celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the November, its date was determined by local town, city, and state governments. The date varied quite a git. Some years it was celebrated in late November, but in other years it could be celebrated as late as December 22nd. Christmas was not celebrated in New England until late in the 19th century, so there was no conflict in having Thanksgiving so late in the year.

In fact, as reader Wicked Yankee presciently mentioned in a recent comment, Thanksgiving effectively took the place of Christmas in Puritan New England. And just as we associate snow with Christmas, the Puritans associated it with Thanksgiving. If Bing Crosby had been a Puritan, he would have sung "I'm dreaming of a white Thanksgiving." The Currier and Ives print and Lydia Marie Child's poem reflect this earlier ideal of the snowy white Thanksgiving.

Mystery solved. I hope you all have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, with or without snow!

November 10, 2011

The Turkey Shoot

Turkey has long been the focus of Thanksgiving feasts in New England. In the colonial era, both domestic turkeys and their wild cousins wound up on the Thanksgiving table.

Unfortunately for them, wild turkeys aren't the smartest birds. The famous naturalist James Audubon relates how he once killed three turkeys with one shotgun blast. Rather than fly away to save their lives, the other members of the flock strutted around their dead friends. Clearly they aren't too bright.

Given their small brains and our ancestors' propensity to shoot anything that moved, the wild turkey became nearly extinct in New England by the middle of the 19th century. One author claimed at the time that the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed on Mount Tom in 1847. Its taxidermied corpse was displayed at the Yale museum.

A turkey shoot, by John Whetten Ehninger.

There were still abundant domestic turkeys available in the 19th century, but some men in New England preferred shooting their Thanksgiving dinner. This led to a somewhat barbaric practice: the turkey shoot.

A farmer would tie one of his turkeys to a fence post or a tree, and then gather together a group of men. Each man was charged a fee, and whoever shot the turkey was allowed to take it home for dinner. It was not as easy as it sounds, since guns at that time were not particularly accurate, and the distance between shooters and turkey was around 300 feet. As James Baker writes in his book Thanksgiving: the Biography of an American Holiday,
"As in shooting galleries at modern carnivals, it took luck and skill to hit one's target, considering the distance, the movement of the bird, the firearms of the day, and the amount of alcohol consumed."
Happily, times have changed. Wild turkeys have made a comeback in New England and most turkey shoots now feature paper targets. For a Thanksgiving totally free of cruelty, I would suggest tofurkey. It may not taste exactly like turkey but it will be easier to shoot if you tie it to a tree.

November 06, 2011

When Was the First Thanksgiving?

When I was a kid, I was taught that the Pilgrims had the first Thanskgiving in 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag, who had helped them adapt to their new homeland, and everyone had a great time. We've been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since.

Apparently the history of Thanksgiving is a little more complicated. My friend Robert Sullivan gave me a copy of James W. Baker's Thanksgiving: the Biography of An American Holiday, and what I read was very illuminating. James Baker was the director of research at Plimoth Plantation, so I think he knows what he's talking about. It seems the roots of Thankgiving go back farther than Plymouth, all the way back to England.

Was this the first Thanksgiving?

According to Baker, the Puritans in England regularly declared fast days, when the people atoned for their sins, and days of thanksgiving, when they celebrated God's providence. Fast days were declared when there was trouble in the world - plagues, wars, droughts, etc. Thanksgiving days were declared when things were going well - victory in war, a bountiful harvest, the death of an unpopular dictator, etc. Fasts and thanksgiving days were not calendrical holidays celebrated annually on particular dates, like we have today, but were announced by the clergy based on world or community events, and were known as "providential holidays." Some years could have several of both, some years could have none.

Only clergy were allowed to announce fast days and thankgiving days, since both involved lengthy church services. On fast days, people abstained from all food. On thanksgiving days, the church service was followed by feasting.

After the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, the first holiday the clergy announced was a day of fasting in July of 1623, during a serious drought. As the Puritans established more settlements in New England they declared other providential holidays, to commemorate things like the end of the Pequot War, or an unusually large catch of fish.

As the colonies became larger, local governments took on the job of declaring annual fast days and thanksgiving days. A fast day was usually celebrated every spring (conveniently when there was not much food available), and a day of thanks was celebrated annually in late November or December, when there was plenty of food available after the harvest and livestock slaughter.

So where does the Pilgrim and Wampanoag harvest celebration of 1621 fit into this history? Interestingly, although the Pilgrims were quite thankful for the harvest, that celebration was not declared an official day of thanks by the clergy. In his journal, Governor Bradford makes note of the feasting, but does not call it a thanksgiving holiday. So technically, that celebration in 1621 was not really the first Thanksgiving. It was, however, a great party.

I think William DeLoss Love, a 19th century historian, sums it up best:

"It was not a thanksgiving at all, judged by their Puritan customs, which they kept in 1621; but as we look back upon it after nearly three centuries, it seems so wonderfully like the day we love that we claim it as the progenitor of our harvest feasts."

October 30, 2011

Witchcraft in Rocks Village and Beyond

When I was in grade school in Haverhill, I spoke with some kids who lived in the Rocks Village neighborhood. They said that on Halloween night, they were going to wait at a crossroads to see if a dead countess buried in a nearby graveyard would walk down the street. I'm not sure what they'd do if they did see her, but the story really impressed me. At the time, I didn't wonder too much about why a countess would be buried in Massachusetts.

When I was in high school, I drove with my friends Christine and Cesar to the countess's grave one night after we saw Nightmare on Elm Street at the movie theater. We were spooked to see that her grave was surrounded by an iron cage! Then Cesar scraped his hand across the roof of the car a la Freddy Krueger, we all screamed, and drove home.

It was only later I learned why there was a cage around Countess Mary Ingalls's grave. She was the first countess in the US, a Rocks Village native who married refugee Count Francois Vipardi in the 1700s. Their romance became the subject of a popular poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the cage was to protect the gravestone from souvenir seekers. The stone is now kept in a building to protect it from vandalism.

I don't know where the spooky story about the countess originated. Perhaps it's just that when Americans of a certain generation see the word "count", they think of vampires.

The countess may not be a ghost or vampire, but there is some interesting folklore about witches in Rocks Village. Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land relates the following stories:

Some people having a party one night in Rocks Village were pestered by a large beetle. The beetle flew in their faces relentlessly, buzzing its wings angrily. Finally, one of the partygoers swatted the insect and crushed it with his foot. At that very moment, Goody Mose, a local woman with a sinister reputation, fell down the stair in her house. Clearly, the beetle had been sent by her to disrupt the party.

Goodman Nichols, another Rocks Village inhabitant, cast a spell on a neighbor's son, "compelling him to run up one end of the house, along the ridge, and down the other end, troubling the family extremely by his strange proceedings..." Skinner doesn't share what caused Nichols to cast the spell, or how the bewitchment was resolved.

Rocks Village lies along the shore of the Merrimack River, and some neighboring towns also had their share of alleged witches. In Amesbury, Barrow Hill was supposedly where both Indian shamans and witches gathered. (The two were identical to the Puritans.) Fires burned on top of the hill late at night, and figures could be seen dancing around it. Even in the 19th century some locals said strange lights could be seen on the hill at night. Amesbury was also the home of Goody Whitcher, whose loom kept moving and making noise long after she was dead.

In West Newbury, Goody Sloper had a reputation as a witch, but redeemed herself when she rescued two people from drowning in the river. And in Newburyport, Goodwife Elizabeth Morse was accused of witchcraft in 1679 by neighbors who had grudges against her. One neighbor even claimed that she made his calves dance on their hand legs and roar. She was sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned by the governor.

I feel lucky to live someplace where there is so much folklore waiting to be discovered. Have a great Halloween!

October 23, 2011

Getting Familiar with the Witch's Familiar

"Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?"
"Have you made no contact with the Devil?"
"Why do you hurt these children?"
"I do not hurt them. I scorn it."
"Who do you employ, then, to do it?"
"I employ nobody."
"What creature do you employ, then?"
In a modern court case, when the accused is asked about accomplices everyone assumes the accomplice is human. In the Salem witch trials, the accused were interrogated about their familiar spirits. The Puritans believed familiar spirits, or familiars for short, were demonic entities given to witches by the Devil to work their mischief. They often took the form of animals, but occasionally were also humanoid or monstrous in appearance.

A 17th English century illustration of witches and their familiars.

The origin of this belief probably lies deep in mankind's past. In many societies, shamans make pacts with animal spirits to help them in their work for the community. Even in 17th century England, many cunning folk (magical practitioners who worked beneficial magic) claimed they derived their skills from familiar spirits, often a fairy of some kind.

Unfortunately, the Puritans in both old and New England didn't believe there could be beneficial familiar spirits. Familiars belonged to the realm of the Devil, and having a familiar was proof of selling yourself to that realm.

In Salem, people were accused of being served by a variety of spirits:

  • Four-year old Dorcas Good accused her mother Sarah of "having three birds, one black, one yellow and that these birds hurt the children and afflicted persons." I don't think the third bird was ever described.
  • The slave Tituba also testified that Sarah Good was served by a yellow bird, as well as a cat.
  • Tituba claimed that accused witch Sarah Osburn also had a familiar spirit, with "wings and two legs and a head like a woman." The familiar could change its shape and become fully human.
  • Sarah Osburn was also served by a "thing all over hairy, all the face hairy, and a long nose, and I don't know how to tell how the face looks." It walked on two legs, and was about three feet high. Tituba had seen it standing in front of the fire in the Reverend Parris' house at night.
  • John Louder claimed that Bridget Bishop sent her familiar to torment him at night. The spirit, which had the body of a monkey, the feet of a rooster, and a human face, crept into his bedroom while he slept and asked Louder to become a witch. He refused, and banished it with a prayer.

Perhaps you've heard the old saying, "It's colder than a witch's tit?" It seems likely that this phrase is derived from the belief that witches suckled their familiars from small, unnatural bodily protrusions called witch's teats. Familiars fed on a witch's blood, of course, not milk. These protrusions were allegedly cold and without any feeling. During trials, accused witches were stripped and searched for witch teats. Moles, pimples, and flea bites were misidentified and used as evidence of witchcraft.

I got most of this information, and the surreal descriptions of the familiars, from Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem.

Next week: Crazy witchcraft stories from the Merrimac Valley!

October 18, 2011

How to Make a Poppet

I think most people are familiar with the concept of a voodoo doll. It's a small human figure meant to represent an individual for magical purposes.

The term "voodoo doll" is really a misnomer. Using dolls to cast spells has a long history, and isn't even particularly associated with Voudou, which is really an Afro-Caribbean polytheistic religion.

In colonial New England these dolls were known as poppets, which is an old spelling of puppet. They were often cited in witchcraft trials as evidence of malicious magic. For example, Goody Glover, and elderly Irish woman accused of bewitching several Boston children, had in her home

"several small images, or poppets, or babies, made of rags and stuffed with goat's hair and other ingredients. When these were produced the vile woman acknowledged that her way to torment the objects of her malice was by wetting of her finger with her spittle and stroking of these little images."

See? No pins are necessary to torment your victims, just a little spit. And Goody Glover later showed that your doll doesn't even need to be well made - a common stone will do.

Before her execution Goody Glover was visited in prison by Cotton Mather, who prayed for her soul. But, as soon as he was out of her sight, he said she "took a stone, a long and slender stone, and with her finger and spittle fell to tormenting it; though whom or what she meant, I had the mercy to never understand."

Goody Glover's trial happened in 1688, and set the stage for the Salem trials of 1692. Poppets once again played an important role.

An early American poppet on display at the Salem Witch House.

Two men testified against Bridget Bishop that while doing work in her cellar, they tore down a wall to find "several poppets made up of rags and hogs' bristles with headless pin in them with the points turned outward..." This evidence helped make her the first person executed in the Salem witch trials.

Poppets were also used as evidence against Candy, a slave in the Salem Village house of Nathaniel Putnam. She kept in her room "a handkerchief wherein several knots were tied, rags of cloth, a piece of cheese, and a piece of grass." These must have been a very simple dolls indeed, but the afflicted girls claimed they could see the specters of Candy and the Black Man (i.e. the Devil) pinching the dolls, which caused them great pain. Candy was later forced to eat the grass, which she claimed burned her skin. Candy confessed to being a witch, and ultimately escaped execution.

Given all the bad energy surrounding poppets in this part of the country, I'm reluctant to provide specific instructions. However, I found this video (with peppy music) that shows you how. Watch it if you dare!

The quotes in this post were from Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem.

Next week - Witches' familiars!

October 09, 2011

The Salem Witch House and Jonathan Corwin

October is Halloween month. The days are getting darker, the air is getting cooler. It puts me in the mood for spooky stories, and tales about witches.

Tony and I went with our friends Lori and Dave up to Salem for our annual pilgrimage. This year rather than visit a cheesy (but scary) haunted house we went someplace with an authentic connection to the Salem witch trials - the Salem Witch House, the former residence of witch trial judge Jonathan Corwin.

Located just off the main drag, the Corwin house is an impressive example of 17th century architecture. Jonathan Corwin bought the house in 1675, but I believe it was built in the 1650s. Now that's an old house!

Jonathan Corwin was born in 1640, and became quite wealthy as a merchant. He served Salem (and Salem Village) as a magistrate, and dealt mostly with petty crimes like public drunkenness and burglary. However, given the penal code of the day, even though the crimes were petty I am sure he delivered some harsh punishments. For example, convicted burglars were branded with a "B" on their hands or forehead, depending on their number of convictions.

Corwin was appointed to serve on the witch trials only after Haverhill's Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned. Saltonstall had quit in protest over the admission of spectral evidence in the trials.

People at the time believed that witches could send their souls (or specters) to attack their victims. The afflicted girls in Salem Village claimed they could see the specters of the witches who were attacking them. Although no one else was able to see them, this spectral evidence was still allowed in the court.

It appears that Jonathan Corwin had no qualms about accepting spectral evidence, but not much is known about his role in the trials. Records from the time are incomplete. Corwin did sign multiple arrest warrants and transcribed the records of several trials.

Corwin's role in the trials did not have a negative effect on his reputation. Although it was eventually acknowledged that the trials killed twenty innocent people, Corwin went on to serve on the state legislature. He died in 1718 at the age of 78.

The Salem Witch House is definitely worth a visit. The architecture is great, and the building is filled with furniture and artifacts from the 17th century. They let you take photos (no flash allowed), which I think is unusual for a house museum. There are also some interesting displays around the house about witchcraft beliefs of the time.

I got my information about Jonathan Corwin from Wikipedia.

Next week: how to make a poppet!

October 02, 2011

Fruitlands, Shakers, and King Philip's War Club

If you're looking for an intense dose of New England culture, I'd suggest a trip to the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts. Tony and I went out there a couple weeks ago, and it's really a great place to visit. The museum's multiple buildings are situated on a hill overlooking a valley. I'm sure you'd get a great view of the fall foliage if you visit in October.

Fruitlands was founded by Clara Endicott Sears, a wealthy Boston spinster, in 1914. It takes its name from a short-lived Utopian community founded in the same location by Bronson Alcott in 1843. The Fruitlands house is still on the museum grounds.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799 - 1888) was an educator, writer, and member of the New England Transcendentalist movement. An abolitionist, feminist, and vegetarian, I think Alcott would have been a hippie had he lived in the 1960s.

In 1843 he founded the Fruitlands Utopian community with Charles Lane, another Transcendentalist. Their goal: to return to Eden. They and their families committed themselves to a vegetarian diet, and would only eat fruit and "aspirational vegetables", which grew upward towards the sky. (Sorry carrots and potatoes, you're out of luck!) They avoided leather and did not use oxen or horses to till the earth. Charles Lane also suggested that they dissolve all marriages and live as one big communal family.

The Fruitlands community only lasted seven months. The land was not good for growing crops, Alcott was not interested in the hard work of farming, and his wife Abby May Alcott threatened to leave if the Utopian experiment continued. Their daughter, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, eventually wrote about the experience in a book called Sowing Transcendental Wild Oats.

Charles Lane and his sons moved from Fruitlands to a nearby Shaker community. During their heyday, this celibate Christian sect had dozens of communities across the Northeast, including one in Harvard. An office building from a Shaker community is part of the Fruitlands museum. It's filled with quite a few interesting artifacts. Before mass industrialization, the Shakers were well known for the consumer and home products goods they produced.

Fruitlands also includes a small museum devoted to American Indians, which has a nice selection of artifacts from local Algonquian Indians. Among them is a large war-club, which may (or may not) be the same war-club used by the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet, aka King Philip, in King Philip's war in the 17th century. King Philip's war was a major event in New England history. Nearly half of all New England towns were destroyed, and 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians were killed. If the war-club really belonged to King Philip, it's a very significant object.

A traditional Algonquian wigwam is located outside the American Indian museum so visitors can experience how local Indians lived before the Puritans arrived.

All in all, a great place to visit!

September 25, 2011

Squant, Ol' Squant, and Granny Squannit

Roger Williams wrote that the Narragansett Indians revered thirty-seven different gods. Most of the ancient gods have been forgotten since Williams lived in the 17th century, but a few of them are still acknowledged by the Indians of southern New England. One of them is Maushop, a giant who created Nantucket and other geographic features. I wrote about him a few years ago.

His wife, Squant, is also still acknowledged by the Wampanoag and the Mohegan. Squant's name is most likely derived from Squauanit, meaning "woman's god", one of the deities recorded by Roger Williams. Squant is also known as Ol' Squant and Granny Squannit.

According to legend, Squant and Maushop had a troubled marriage. Maushop had a temper that matched his huge height, and once threw all their children into the ocean, where they were transformed into whales. Squant was understandably upset about this, and mourned the loss of her children. Her tears enraged Maushop even more, and he threw her from their home on Martha's Vineyard to Rhode Island, where she was transformed into Sakonnet Rock. Sakonnet Rock originally was shaped like a woman, but over time it's limbs fell off until it became unrecognizable. When Squant mourns for her children, the wind sighs and the surf moans.

Another story claims that Squant was once very beautiful, but her eyes were cut into square shapes by an enemy (possibly Cheepi, aka Hobbomock) who found her asleep on the beach. Squant hid her deformity by growing her beautiful black hair over her face. Her hair is now so long that she is said to resemble a huge haystack.

These myths show Squant as a passive victim of other deities, but that's not really the case. She is still quite active in the world, and isn't just petrified down on the Rhode Island shore.

Here's an example. In 1928, a group of schoolchildren and their teacher were walking along the beach near Mashpee. As they strolled, they saw what they thought was a haycart being pulled by oxen. But then they realized there weren't any oxen - the giant pile of hay was moving by itself! It was Squant. They all fled in fear. Mashpee children were instructed to never make fun of Squant or she would "tear you all to pieces." During the annual Cranberry Festival in the 20th century, "a child was given a basket of food to carry into the dunes to set down at a lonely spot as a gift to old Granny Squannit, and cautioned to hurry away without ever looking back."

Although somewhat terrifying, Squant also has a positive side and helps shamans. In the nineteenth century, Wampanoag herbalist William Perry was well-known across southern New England for his healing abilities. He credited them to Granny Squannit. If he needed to find a particularly rare herb, he would leave an offering of food under a pine tree and she would tell him the plant's location.

Granny Squannit has a similar reputation among the Mohegan, who say she rules the Makiawasug, the little people who dwell in the forest and under the hills. In one Mohegan tale, a medicine woman descends to an underground chamber to heal Granny Squannit from an illness. In thanks, the goddess gives the woman a basket of items to use in her healing practice.

So, in closing I'd say be respectful when you're walking on the beach or in the woods, because you never know if Squant is watching you.

I found most of this information in William Simmons' Spirit of the New England Tribes.

September 17, 2011

Looking for love, but finding Satan!

Love magic has a long history in New England. For example, the girls who started the Salem witch trials made a Venus glass, which was supposed to predict their future husbands. As we all know, once they started dabbling in magic they got more than they asked for.

Love magic continued for centuries here, and I found this story in Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses by Frederic Denison, published in 1878. Once again young women are involved, and once again things get out of hand.

In the 1700s, two young ladies named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One afternoon, while Mr. Clark was out on business and his wife was ill in bed, Hannah and Comfort became bored and decided to try some love magic. What could possibly go wrong?

They took a ball of yarn to the well, and repeatedly tossed it down and pulled it up, all the while reciting Biblical psalms backwards. According to popular belief at the time, these magical actions should make their future husbands appear.

As the sun went down, Hannah and Comfort went to the front of the house to wait for their beaus to manifest. Their thoughts turned to rich, handsome men.

Soon, they saw a figure walking towards them. Was it a future husband?

As the figure got closer, they noticed he was taller than the average man. In fact, he was between 8 and 10 feet tall. His height wasn't the only thing strange. His face was hideous - his eyes were the size of saucers, and flames spouted from his mouth.

Clearly, this was not what they expected.

The young ladies ran into the house, shrieking, and threw themselves onto the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill. The monster, meanwhile, made his way to the front door.

At this point, Mr. Clark returned home. Seeing a large, and possibly demonic, monster in front of his house, the pious man began to pray. The prayers worked! The monster shuffled away, and was seen no more in Westerly.

Hannah and Comfort never used the Bible for magical purposes again, and lived very religious lives from that time on. Unfortunately Mrs. Clark died shortly after that night. The shock of having a monster from Hell on her stoop was too much for her weakened constitution.

It was only decades later that the people of Westerly learned it was not Satan who appeared that evening, but a fellow mortal. A man named Daniel Rogers, who had once been a neighbor of the Clarks, confessed he had really been the monster, and his demonic visage was merely a large jack-o-lantern. He wanted to play a prank on the girls, but had kept quiet for years afterwards out of guilt for causing Mrs. Clark's death.

That's the end of the story. It reminds me of an episode of Scooby Doo. The monster's real - no, wait, it isn't! The part about Daniel Rogers being the monster feels a little tacked on to me. Isn't this story really about the perils of unmarried young women with too much free time? A cautionary tale from a more patriarchal era?

I think so, and a very similar story recorded in 1928 among the Wompanoag of Gay Head proves my point.

Once upon a time, a Wompanoag minister had four daughters. One evening while he was out preaching, his daughters tried a little love magic that involved hanging their underwear in front of the fireplace. Soon a howling wind picked up, and they heard someone (or something?) pounding on the doors and windows of their house. The girls cowered inside, terrified. When the minister came home, he saw a large creature, half human and half animal, clawing at the front door. The monster disappeared into the night, and the minister reprimanded his daughters for raising spirits. (From William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes (1986)).

I definitely like this version better. There's no Scooby Doo ending, just magic, a monster, and some teenage girls causing trouble. It could be the basis for someone's thesis in Women's Studies.

September 07, 2011

Rhode Island Ghosts and Vampires on TV

Set your VCR, Tivo, or other recording device! Tonight (September 7) and tomorrow night the there will be two programs about supernatural happenings in Rhode Island. As the days get shorter and the weather gets cooler, these are exactly the type of things I like to watch.

Does this look like Rhode Island to you?

Tonight, the SyFy channel's "Ghost Hunters" investigates Seaview Terrace, a mansion in Newport. Episodes of the old horror soap opera "Dark Shadows" were filmed there from 1966 - 1971, and apparently there have been some lingering after effects. The new owner claims the mansion is haunted, with a disembodied voice that cries out "Hello? Are you there?", mysterious cold spots, and a doorknob that opens on its own. Investigators from the Atlantic Paranormal Society try to get to the bottom of things. "Ghost Hunters" airs at 9:00 p.m.

The other show airs tomorrow night (September 8) on WSBE Rhode Island PBS. "Haunted RI" will examine the case of Mercy Brown, one of the most famous New England vampires. Mercy died of tuberculosis in the 1890s. When her little brother developed the same disease, neighbors suspected that Mercy was feeding on his life force from her grave. A grisly exhumation followed. I'm sure the show will be interesting, but if you want a detailed description of this and similar cases I would recommend Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires by Rhode Island state folklorist Michael Bell. It's one of those books that made me realize how strange the past really was.

Creepy photo of Ram Tail mill from Greenville Paranormal Research.

"Haunted RI" will also look at Ram Tail Mill. The mill, and the small village around it, both fell into ruin long ago, but the site is still supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Peleg Walker, a former watchman who committed suicide. You can find more about the haunted mill, plus directions, here. "Haunted RI" may become a regular series, for those of you lucky enough to live in the Ocean State.

I want to thank my friend Steve, a huge "Dark Shadows" fan, for telling me about these shows! You can also read about them in the Providence Journal.

August 28, 2011

Some Weather Lore

I'm sitting here at my computer during Tropical Storm Irene. The weather's not as bad as some forecasters thought, but it's certainly not great. Pieces of my neighbor's roof blew into our driveway, and there are some random pieces of debris up and down the street.

In honor of Irene, here's some weather folklore from Maine. It's good for any time of year, not just hurricane season!

Rooster crowing on the fence, rain will go hence.
Rooster crowing on the ground, rain surely will come down.

I hope the rooster got paid extra for his weather predictions, because it sounds like people depended on him in pre-Internet days. Here's another rooster forecast:
If a rooster crows before going to bed
He will rise with a wet head.
The rooster doesn't have a monopoly in the bird world, though. Robins calling to each other, and loons crying are also signs of rain.

Animals other than birds can predict the weather as well. Want to know if a windstorm is coming? Check to see if your local spider is adding extra strands to his web, if the sea gulls have flown inland, or (if you're at sea) dolphins are playing around your ship.

Here's my favorite weather rhyme from Maine. Short and sweet, and a little spicey.

Sun sets Friday clear as a bell
Rain on Monday sure as hell.

This weather folklore is courtesy of Horace Beck's The Foklore of Maine.

August 21, 2011

The Boogeyman of Beverly

Beverly Harbor

I like to think I'm too old to believe in the boogeyman. I'm assuming most of my readers feel the same way.

In the 1970s, a family bought an old decrepit mansion near the harbor in Beverly, Massachusetts. I'm sure they didn't believe in the boogeyman either - at least until they moved in.

Almost immediately upon moving in the family experienced some strange things. For example, the door that led from the house's kitchen into the backyard was found open every morning, even when it had been locked the night before. Items in the kitchen and pantry were often rearranged, and the kitchen table moved.

Suspecting local pranksters, the family's father tried to fix the situation by installing a new double lock on the door. I didn't work - the door was still found wide open each morning. Adding to the general creepiness, the family often felt like they were being watched while in the kitchen, and their dog refused to enter the room late at night.

Things got stranger.

One afternoon Steve, one of the family's sons, heard his mother yell, "Steve, stay out of your father's office!" Steve came out of the living room, and his mother looked shocked. They were both on the first floor; his father's office was on the second floor. But if if wasn't Steve, who was in the office? No one else was home.

As they started to call the police, they saw through the window a shadowy figure jump from the office's second floor balcony. The police came to investigate but no signs of an intruder were found.

That summer, most of the family retreated to their New Hampshire vacation house, but Steve, who worked as a lifeguard in Beverly, stayed behind. He slept with an antique WWII pistol on his nightstand, wrapped in a piece of old rabbit fur for protection.

One night, Steve awoke abruptly at 3:00 am. There was someone in his bedroom, and they were laughing maniacally at the foot of his bed. The room was pitch black. Terrified, Steve rolled onto the floor and reached for the gun.

He was surprised to find the items on the nightstand had been rearranged. The lamp and clock had been moved around, and the pistol was no longer wrapped in fur.

Still, Steve was able to find the pistol and he shouted at the intruder, telling him (it?) to leave or get shot. There was no answer. Steve finally got up enough nerves to run out of the room and out into the backyard. He got into his car and drove off, and kept driving until the sun came up.

When he went back home, he noticed something on the kitchen table.

...placed on the kitchen table, folded like a fancy napkin was the rabbit fur that had been on my bedroom nightstand.

Steve immediately got back in his car and drove to New Hampshire. He spent the rest of the summer at the vacation home, and then went off to college. The family sold the house a few weeks later.

That's the story as it appears in Robert Ellis Cahill's New England's Things That Go Bump in the Night. Cahill was a retired Salem sheriff, and published about a dozen small booklets of New England folklore and ghost stories. They're hard to find these days, but if you locate one buy it. You won't be sorry.

Cahill titled the chapter about the boogeyman, "The Boogeyman of Beggerly", using an old derogatory name for Beverly. Hey, it sounds better with boogeyman, so why not?

I was recently up in Beverly to see my college friend Lori, and we thought we'd try to find the house. I can't be 100% sure, but I think we found it.

And you know what? It really does look haunted.

August 14, 2011

Why Vampires Get Staked Through the Heart

We just finished watching season three of True Blood on DVD. Lots of vampires got staked through the heart, and burst into puddles of bloody, stringy pulp.

I don't expect any subtlety from True Blood, but I still think it's interesting how Hollywood portrays vampires being staked through the heart. Something that originated to prevent malevolent souls from wandering out of their graves has now become a messy way to kill a physical monster.

Vampire lore originated in Eastern Europe, and the original vampires weren't sexy monsters who sucked blood from their victim's necks with fangs. Vampires were the souls of the restless dead, often of criminals or others who had violated social norms, who fed on the life force (sometimes symbolized by blood) of the living members of their community. Vampires weren't strangers who came to town, but were people known to their victims.

One way to keep a vampire in its grave was to drive a stake through its heart. The point of this was not to kill a corporeal monster (a vampire's already dead, after all), but rather to nail the soul into its grave. The wandering soul was really the problem, not the mouldering body. To drive the symbolism home, in some places the stake was driven through the legs, or even through the corpse's clothing. Anything to keep that vampire in the grave!

Stakes were sometimes also put through the heart of witches, as in the case of Goody Cole of Hampton, New Hampshire.

Goody Cole lived in Hampton in the late 17th century, and was poor, sharp-tongued, and unpopular with her neighbors. Eventually she was found guilty of witchcraft: killing an infant with magic, causing a man to fall ill, harming various farm animals, and capsizing a boat to drown a carpenter who angered her. She spent many years jailed in Boston, and finally died in a small hut where she had been living as a ward of Hampton.

When the citizens of Hampton buried her, they put a stake through her heart. For good measure, they also attached an iron horseshoe to the stake. (In European folkore, iron has the power to stop malevolent magic.) They weren't killing a vampire, and Goody Cole's body didn't explode into a pile of bloody goop. The people of Hampton just wanted her soul to stay in the grave.

The Hampton library has a great webpage full of resources about Goody Cole with lots of interesting stuff. For example, after her death the well near her hut became known as Goody Cole's well. Sailors used to fill their casks with water from it because it never went brackish. Check it out if you get the chance!

August 09, 2011

Jesus Likes Codfish, Satan Likes Haddock

I just spent some time on Cape Cod, and came back curious about the cod and codfish folklore.

Cape Cod got its name back in 1602 when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold noticed lots of cod in the water near a large sandy peninsula. Voila! Cape Cod. He also saw lots of herring and mackerels, so Massachusetts could have wound up with a Cape Herring or Cape Mackerel. I guess Gosnold like the alliterative sound of Cape Cod instead.

Most people in Massachusetts know that a wooden cod hangs in the state's House of Representatives chamber on Beacon Hill. It's called the Sacred Cod, and is perhaps the only sacred thing in the State House. The Sacred Cod has hung in the State House since the 18th century, and symbolizes the important role this once plentiful fish used to play in the local economy.

In The Yankee Cook Book (1939), Imogene Wolcott relates another story about why the cod is sacred.

She claims that when Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes, he did so using a codfish. The light colored markings found on the cod today are the impressions left by Jesus's fingers and thumb.

Note the white stripe caused by Jesus's touch

Of course, Satan was hanging out nearby, and when he saw Jesus perform the miracle he laughed evilly. "Ha!", he said. "You think you're so great? I can do the same thing."

Satan reached into the sea and grabbed a haddock. The fish wriggled free of Satan's hellishly hot hands, but not without damage. The black stripes found on the side of haddock today are actually burn marks caused by Satan's fingers so long ago.

Note the black stripe caused by the touch of Satan!

Cod prefer deep cold water, and are found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I don't think they're found in the Sea of Galilee, so this story is probably not gospel truth. If you want to avoid the theological dilemma caused by having to choose cod or haddock for dinner, just go vegetarian!

July 28, 2011

Conscateous Air

A few weeks ago I went to Kansas City, Missouri for work. Wow, was it hot! The temperatures were well over 100 degrees during the day, and at night they were still in the 80s. It was really humid too. It was thick and sticky.

In New England, we've been lucky to escape the worst of the monster heat wave that's torturing the middle of the country. But although most people hate the heat and humidity, it may have a positive side.

Well, at least according to the Old Farmers Almanac. The almanac's writers claim that the warm, damp air so prevalent in July is good for growing corn. The term "cornscateous air" was supposedly used by early almanac writers to describe hot, humid, corn-promoting weather. Cornscateous. Things in Kansas City were really cornscateous.

I kind of wonder if the people at the almanac's office in Dublin, NH are just pulling our legs with this word. I've never seen the word "cornscateous" anyplace except in their almanac or someplace that references their almanac. I couldn't find it in any dictionary. And who exactly were these early almanac writers anyway?

Maybe I'm being too skeptical. Perhaps if I were a farmer, or liked miserable humid weather, I'd be more familiar with the word. However, I did buy some local corn at the farmers' market, and it was great. Whether I like it or not, I guess we're getting just the right amount of conscateous air in Massachusetts.

July 24, 2011

Omens from Maine

License plates from Maine call the state Vacationland or the Pine Tree State. It sounds so innocent and idyllic!

Anyone who has read a Stephen King novel knows there's a dark side to Maine, however. That dark side has probably been there since the area was first settled.

Horace Beck's book The Foklore of Maine lists some signs Mainers use to foretell death. Here are a few of them:

A beetle clicking on the hearth is a sign someone will die.

A howling dog? A sure sign of death.

If you see tallow building up around your candle, be leery because it's an omen of doom.

If a corpse is limp, it means another person will die soon.

A white horse at a funeral means another death is coming. (If you're at a funeral with a limp corpse and a white horse I guess you're really in big trouble!)

Don't let a partridge in your house because it is an omen of death. Was this ever a common situation, or is just it a local variation on the common belief that a bird in the house means someone will die? Although not mentioned by Beck, the gorbey and the whippoorwill are two other New England birds associated with mortality and the soul.

The belief about birds apparently even affected how the Mainers decorated their houses. According to Beck's book, wallpaper with birds on it brings bad luck. Just play it safe and use paint, I say!

July 16, 2011

The Horned Boy of Bangor

After last week's post about Pamola I got a hankering for more Maine folklore. Here's a great story from Horace Beck's 1957 book The Folklore of Maine.

Many years ago near Bangor a family had two sons. The older boy was always mischievous and getting into trouble. He was so poorly behaved that his neighbors said he had the Devil in him. The younger boy, however, was quiet and well-behaved.

One day the older boy found out his younger brother would be walking home after dark. "Aha!" he thought. "The perfect occasion for a prank."

He covered his body with a cow skin, put a cow skull on his head, and hid in the bushes near the road. When his little brother walked by, he jumped from his hiding place, howling and waving his arms. He expected his brother to run all the way home!

The surprise was on him. His younger brother picked up a large branch and hit the horned monster soundly on the head. Then he ran home.

When he told his parents what happened they ran down the road. Their worst fears were confirmed - their oldest son was dead, killed with a single blow.

His parents pulled off the cow skin, but no matter how hard they tried they were unable to remove the horns from his head. They asked neigbhors and friends to help, but to no avail. The horns wouldn't budge. It was if they were fused to his head.

A few days later the boy was buried with the horns still attached. At the funeral all the neighbors whispered, "We always knew he had the Devil in him."

July 07, 2011

Pamola, the Wandering Spirit of Mt. Katahdin

I've never climbed Mt. Katahdin, which is in Maine's Baxter State Park. It's the tallest mountain in the state, and the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of folklore attached to this big mountain.

One of the most interesting stories is about a creature named Pamola. I don't know if any recent hikers or climbers have encountered him, but I'm sure they'd remember if they did.

According to the Penobscot Indians, Pamola was a wandering spirit, and Mt. Katahdin was one of his favorite hangouts.

Katahdin photo from here.

According to Frank Speck's 1935 article Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs, Pamola has no body, but is just a large head with arms and legs. (He sounds strangely like one of those animated M&Ms who show up in the commercials.) He has no settled home, but roams around from place to place wearing a backpack, which is very appropriate given Katahdin's location on the Appalachian Trail.

Other informants told Speck they had seen Pamola flying overhead, and that he was just a giant head with wings. See what I mean about him being memorable?

Despite his unusual appearance, Pamola was considered a beneficial spirit and would sometimes give aid to humans. However, if you needed his help you'd have to time it just right.

Once a year Pamola traveled across the entire sky. Beginning at the eastern horizon he'd let out a big shout, give another one at the sky's zenith directly overhead, and then one final one when he reached the western horizon. To gain his aid, the Penobscots would burn grease when they heard his first cry. If Pamola saw the smoke as he traveled overhead he would descend and listen to the Penobscot's request for help.

Unfortunately, Speck's article doesn't say what time of year Pamola made his journey. And please note, although I am writing about Pamola in the past tense he could still be hanging around Mt. Katahdin or flying across the sky. I don't want to offend a spirit by implying it's no longer active.

Pamola is still known in parts of Maine, and is the mascot of the Pamola Lodge of the Boy Scouts of America. Or maybe he adopted the Lodge as his mascots, I'm not quite sure. These scouts portray Pamola as a man with a the head of a moose and the wings and feet of an eagle. I guess the giant flying head was probably too terrifying!

June 26, 2011

Cannons, Pranks, and Scaring Horses: Happy Independence Day!

In our current era, pranks are usually played on April Fool's Day and on Halloween. But in the 19th century, the Fourth of July was also an occasion for youngsters to cause mischief.

In his 1932 book Black Tavern Tales, Stories of Old New England, Charles Goodell describes what life was like in Dudley, Massachusetts in the 19th century. Boy, the kids really got into a lot of trouble!

The Black Tavern in Dudley.

Dudley's town common featured a historic Revolutionary War cannon, and on the Fourth of July the local boys would fill it with paper, grass and wet rags. Oh, and lots of gunpowder. They'd heat up a scythe blade, stick it in the cannon, and then run for cover as the gunpowder ignited. It all sounds like fun and games, but Goodell relates than one year a friend was hit in the face by the exploding cannon. His eyebrows were burned off, gun powder was embedded in his skin, and he was temporarily blinded. Luckily he recovered his sight, but the powder marks never left his face.

Other pranks were less life-threatening. The boys would ring the church bell at midnight to signal the beginning of Independence Day, and then run around down in the darkness taking gates off their hinges. The gates would be hidden in bushes or tall grass. Annoying, but at least no one was blinded.

The Dudley boys also enjoyed scaring horses by throwing firecrackers under their hooves. Goodell writes,

Frightening horses by tossing lighted firecrackers near them was considered legitimate sport. If your horse bolted in consequence of a firecracker exploding under its feet, you got little sympathy. You should have known better than to take your horse out on the Fourth. So most people stayed home and ate watermelon and ice cream...

So I guess despite all the noise and mischief, at least most horses in Dudley had the day off.

If you want to read about an even more raucous celebration, check out my post about Independence Day celebrations in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Have a good Fourth, and don't do anything to scare the horses!

June 19, 2011

Nathaniel Saltonstall, Salem Witch Trials Judge

I went to my ancestral Haverhill home today, and stopped by the Pentucket Cemetery on Water Street. Lots of interesting people are buried there, including some victims of the raid that made Hannah Duston a national heroine.

The most impressive monument belongs to the family of Nathaniel Saltonstall, who was one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s.

Saltonstall was born in Ipswich in 1639, attended Harvard, and eventually became Haverhill's town clerk. He married Elizabeth Ward, who was the daughter of John Ward, the minister who founded Haverhill. In short, he was kind of a bigwig.

When the 1692 witch craze broke out in Salem Village, Saltonstall was appointed to the Court Oyer and Terminer, a group of seven judges who would oversee the witchcraft trials.

Saltonstall only heard one witchcraft case, that of Bridget Bishop, who was found guilty and hanged on Gallows Hill. After this, he removed himself from the Court Oyer and Terminer. Salem was far from his home in Haverhill, but more importantly he didn't believe the afflicted girls were really possessed, and found the spectral evidence admitted in court unconvincing.

It wasn't so easy for him to escape the Salem madness unscathed, though. When he returned to Haverhill he started to drink heavily, and was reprimanded for it by Samuel Sewall, one of the judges who remained on the court. Even worse, the afflicted Salem Village girls claimed they saw Nathaniel Saltonstall's spectre with the other witches, and that he was a witch himself.

Because he was well-connected Saltonstall was never brought to trial. He weathered the witch craze, and eventually died in 1707. I don't know if he stopped drinking.

I got most of this information from Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts, plus several genealogical sources on Google books.

June 09, 2011

Sex Lives of the Puritans, Part 3: Gay Pride Post

Image taken from this site.

The Boston LGBT Pride Parade will happen this Saturday. Floats with house music and gyrating go-go boys will thunder through the city's most historic districts, undoubtedly causing the Puritans to roll over in their graves at King's Chapel and Old Granary Burying Ground.

What would the Puritans have thought of a gay pride parade? They would have disapproved, but allegedly they also would have been puzzled by the concept of "gay" people. According to historians and social theorists, Puritan culture didn't recognize people had different sexual orientations, but simply thought people performed different sexual acts. Sex was something you did, not something you were.

So technically there were no gay Puritans, just Puritans who sometimes sinfully and illegally had sex with people of the same gender. Sometimes over and over, and again and again. In fact, there were so many repeat offenders the Puritans should be embarrassed they didn't invent the concept of gayness! It was right there under their noses.

For example, take the case of Thomas Roberts, who lived in Plymouth Colony in the early 1600s. In 1636 he and a neighbor named John Allexander were found guilty of "lude behavior and uncleane carriage one with another." In 1637, Roberts was found guilty of "disorderly living" with Abraham Pottle, Walter Duell, and Webb Adey. And in 1641, Roberts was ordered to stop living with a man named George Morrey.

It sounds to me like Thomas Roberts was gay - and very popular.

Here's another example. Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705), a Malden minister and author of a popular and cheery-sounding poem titled The Day of Doom, used a secret code to write in his diary about the lust he felt for his male divinity students. For example, on July 4, 1653 he wrote of

"Such filthy lust also flowing from my fond affection to my pupils whiles in their presence."

On his physician's advice he married, hoping to cure the unwanted feelings, but consummating the relationship with his wife didn't work. Instead, he wrote,

"I feel stirrings and strongly of my former distemper even after the use of marriage the next day which makes me exceeding afraid."

I guess closeted gay clergymen have a very long history in this country. I just wish I could travel back in time and introduce the concept of sexual orientation to Rev. Wigglesworth. It might have cleared things up for him.

Looking back, I think it's pretty clear that some of this country's earliest English settlers were indeed gay, even if their culture didn't have that word. I bet this Saturday when the Pride Parade goes past those old cemeteries some of the Puritans buried there will be happy to watch!

I got this information mostly from the Boston History Project's Improper Bostonians. Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. The History Project is supposed to have a booth on City Hall Plaza after the Pride Parade, and I'm sure they can tell you more about this subject.

June 05, 2011

Sex Lives of the Puritans, Part 2: Bundling

My last post was about courting tubes, which unwed couples used to communicate with each other while in the same room as their families. The New England Puritans wanted young couples to be compatible before they got married - but didn't want them to have sex.

These two somewhat contradictory cultural impulses culminated in a practice known as bundling.

Courting tubes are kind of cute, like kids using cans on a string to play telephone, but bundling is just bizarre to me! It originated among the Puritans, and seems to have continued in parts of New England until the early 19th century. I believe it may still happen among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

What was bundling? Well, if a young couple was getting along well and marriage seemed likely, their families encouraged them to spend a night together in the same bed. So far, so good. I think many modern Americans would agree sleeping together can determine compatibility.

But would we agree it should be done while tied up in giant sacks? Probably not.

To prevent the young lovers from actually making love, their families would tie them up in large cloth bags before putting them in bed. Only their heads would be outside the sacks, so they could talk with each other.

To further prevent physical contact, sometimes a board would be placed between the man and woman. Some beds were even built with grooves in their headboards to accommodate a bundling board. There must have been a lot of bundling going on if special beds were being made!

Strangely, despite all their precautions, the New England Puritans and their descendants still experienced a high rate of pre-marital births. Researchers have found that while less than 10% of New England brides were pregnant at their wedding in the 17th century, this number climbed to a whopping 40% in the 18th century.

Were the sacks tied too loosely? Did the boards have holes in them? Possibly, but I think it also could be that the definition of bundling was pretty flexible.

It appears that strict families used boards and sacks, but some families didn't use either. They would simply allow the youngsters to lie together in bed with their clothes on. And it's pretty easy for clothes to come off…

Dana Doten's 1938 book The Art of Bundling contains this little story, which first appeared in the 1796 Vermont Almanac. I think it sums up the whole situation nicely.

An Indian warrior who supported the American troops in the Revolution was staying at a large house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One night he went upstairs and came upon the young lady of the house bundling with her beau.

In embarrassment the Indian tried to leave the room, but the beau asked him to stay. "We're not behaving inappropriately", he said. "It is just as easy for us to be good here as anyplace else!"

"Yes", said the Indian, "but it is much easier to be wicked."

A couple of this blog's readers commented and emailed me about bundling after my last post - great minds think alike!

May 22, 2011

Sex Lives of the Puritans, Part 1: The Courting Tube

Today's post is short, but a little spicy.

When most people hear the word Puritan today, they think of dour people in black who never had sex. That's not quite true. The Puritans encouraged lots of sex within a marriage, and the New England Puritans had a very high birth rate.

In order to ensure a successful marriage, and therefore a successful sex life, young people went through a lengthy courting process. One goal was to make sure both families approved of the union, but another was to let the young man and woman become well acquainted.

Unfortunately, a few factors made this difficult. Courting couples could not be left unchaperoned, so young beaus had to visit their sweethearts in their families' homes. If you've ever been in a house built in the 1600s you know they are often quite small. Private conversation between the couple was impossible, what with the whole family sitting in one small room, and a watchful grandmother seated between the young man and woman.

How then, were a young couple supposed to get acquainted, and maybe even whisper some sweet nothings into each other's ears?

From this page about the history of hearing aids.

Through a courting tube, of course. A courting tube was a long wooden tube through which the lovers could talk to each other without being overheard. The young woman would place one end in her ear, and her beau would speak softly into the other. To hear her reply, the young man would then put his end in his ear when she spoke. The tube could be passed in front of or behind grandma, so it worked even with a chaperone separating the couple. Ingenious! Repressive social rules were overcome with a cumbersome, but effective, device.

The courting tube is sometimes also called a speaking tube or courting stick, but by whatever name I first read about it in Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fisher.

Next week - more shocking Puritan sex secrets!

May 15, 2011

The Pigman of Northfield, Vermont

The time? 1971.

The place? A high school dance in picturesque Northfield, Vermont.

I'm sure you can imagine the scene. Crepe paper streamers, teens dancing to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", bell bottom jeans, mediocre orange punch. A scene of small town serenity.

However, small towns often have weird secrets, and Northfield's most shocking secret came to light that night when a group of students ran into the dance. They looked scared, and some of them were in tears.

They had been drinking beer in a sandpit behind the school, they said, when something strange came out of the woods. It was tall, naked, and covered in white hair. And although it walked on two legs, it had the face of a pig.

Whatever it was, it scared the hell out of the teens - they even abandoned the beer in their panic! Some of the braver students ventured out of the dance to investigate the sandpit. They didn't see the monster, but did find the grass and underbrush had been trampled down. Something had been there. And thus the Pigman appeared in Northfield.

Artist's rendering of the Pigman from Joseph Citro's Weird New England.

After the dance was disrupted, the locals made some strange connections. A farmer said he had seen a hideous naked figure rummaging through his trash a few nights earlier. More eerily, people remembered how a teenage boy disappeared from his family's farm six months ago. At the time authorities thought he had run away, but now people wondered if something more sinister had happened. Could he have been transformed into this strange monster? Or perhaps been eaten by it for dinner? A monster had to eat, and an awful lot of animals had gone missing recently...

The Pigman was seen in Northfield off and on for years, often around an area called the Devil's Washbowl. Motorists saw him run across the road, and teens who went to make out in the Washbowl sometimes had a surprise guest disrupt their romantic interlude.

Although the creature himself was somewhat elusive, physical evidence suggested he was real. A local man named Jeff Hatch and his friends found some caves near the Washbowl filled with animal bones, and found a similar stash of gnawed bones in the town's only pig farm. Strange cloven footprints were also found in the soft ground.

I don't know if we'll ever know who (or what) the Pigman is. The top two theories are that the missing teenage boy somehow devolved and became feral, or that some lonely farmer and a particularly friendly pig ... well, you know what I mean. I don't think genetics work that way, but try telling that to the teens in Northfield, who still get spooked at night when they go drinking out in the woods.

You can read more about the Pigman in books by Vermont author Joseph Citro, particularly Weird New England and Green Mountains, Dark Tales.